Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy (Volume 8, Forthcoming)

23 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2020

See all articles by Adam Perry

Adam Perry

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 29, 2020


Pardon powers are common but difficult to justify. A pardon power is, roughly, a power that is (a) possessed by a non-judicial official, (b) used to cancel legal liability to a criminal sanction in a particular case without thereby altering the law, and (c) unconstrained by law. So defined, pardon powers seem to be at odds with two constitutional principles. Contrary to the separation of powers, the pardon power gives to someone other than a judge a decisive role in determining criminal liability in particular cases. Contrary to the rule of law, the pardon power is neither constrained nor ruled by law.

Here I provide a novel defence of pardon powers, in three steps. First, even an optimal legal code requires suboptimal results in some cases. In such cases there is a “gap” between what is required by the code we should have and what we should do absent that code. Adhering to the code in every gap case is undesirable: while it would avoid suboptimal results, it would create too much unpredictability. Deviating from the code in every gap case is also undesirable: while it would ensure predictability, it would produce too many suboptimal results. The best strategy is to adhere in some cases and to deviate in others, that is, to selectively deviate. The most important thing about selective deviation is that it leads to like cases being treated differently. This is the second step in the argument. Third, pardon powers are an appropriate vehicle for selective deviation. Selective deviation calls for a power that can be used to set aside the code without changing it. It calls for a power that can be used inconsistently. Moreover, it calls for a power that is not in the hands of a body institutionally disposed towards consistency in decision-making, such as the judiciary. That is, it requires a power with features (a)-(c) – a pardon power.

This argument overcomes the various objections to pardon powers. Contrary to the objection from the separation of powers, selective deviation is a task better carried out by non-judicial officials. Contrary to the objection from the rule of law, a power of selective deviation must be unconstrained to preserve the law’s guiding function. Overall, the features of pardon powers that seemed to be in tension with the separation of powers and the rule of law turn out to be favoured by those same principles.

Suggested Citation

Perry, Adam, Pardons (October 29, 2020). Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy (Volume 8, Forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

Adam Perry (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

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